Top 10 lessons I learned backpacking alone

Lucy J. Madison journaling on the Appalachian Trail.

By Lucy J. Madison
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The first time I departed for a solo hiking trip on the Appalachian Trail, I over packed. By a lot. Any seasoned hiker will tell you this happens all the time. You start out all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed thinking you need every little gizmo and gadget, and you end up realizing the absolute hell of carrying all that weight for a few extra items you barely use. So, you ditch everything that isn’t critical to your survival.

The backpack weight for my first hike was around thirty-eight pounds for a seven-day trip. That included everything from socks and underwear to food, water, tent, sleeping bag, maps, and more. I recognized pretty quickly that carrying thirty-eight extra pounds up and down mountains on shale, rock, wet moss and muddy trails was both painful and stupid. After that first trip, I spread everything out on the floor and took a long, hard look at each item and even went so far to cut down my toothbrush handle to save a few precious ounces. The next time I went out for a similar hike, my pack weight was down to a very manageable twenty-eight pounds. And each day I consumed food, the pack weight decreased more and more. You might not think ten pounds is a lot, but when you’re lugging that extra ten pounds up and down for ten miles over ten-hours, trust me, you’ll feel differently.

Hiking over 800 miles on the Appalachian Trail taught me a lot about life that I find myself applying to my days both on and off the Trail. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned:

  1. Few possessions matter. I don’t need all the stuff I thought I needed to be content. If you really take a look at what you use and wear on a daily basis, you’ll probably find what I did: you don’t need as much as you think you do, and you can be happy with less. I find that I apply this often to my life and tend to buy fewer items. The items I do buy are well thought out and the highest quality I can afford.
  2. Soap is important. Soap is an essential that I am not willing to part with. I’ll deal with cold water rinsing. I’ll deal with re-using a bandana and wearing stinky clothes. But I become incredibly cranky and unhappy if I climb into my sleeping bag dirty and sticky. I don’t sleep well, and I fixate on the dirt. Just because I’m in the woods doesn’t mean I need to smell like a bear.
  3. Live in the moment. Hiking requires concentration. Most people think the Appalachian Trail is like a broad, level, and a graveled rail trail that’s a piece of cake to walk on. The truth is almost the exact opposite. Because of the unstable ground, steep inclines and declines, it’s imperative to be aware of every single footfall. I find this incredibly comforting, and it forces me to listen to my breathing, the birds, and the breeze through the trees. It’s like a walking meditation, and it allows me to live in the moment. It’s also taught me that time is an incredible gift.
  4. Technology is a tool, not a crutch. The first time I went hiking alone, I experienced severe technology withdrawals. I couldn’t Google every little question that popped into my mind. I couldn’t check the weather radar. I wasn’t able to send or receive text messages, see my CNN news alerts. How was I going to survive? After two literally painful days in solitude, I began to use my senses again, and it felt amazing. I’d been guilty of using technology as a crutch to fill the quiet moments and keep myself stimulated. Without it, I re-learned how to use nature and my own mind to encourage myself plenty. That said, having the safety of a satellite communicator in case of emergency is a technology item I always carry, which proves my point: technology is a tool, not a crutch.
  5. The grass is green wherever you are. I’ve often said that hiking the Appalachian Trail is similar to scrambling through a rocky, jade tunnel. You usually can’t see more than a few yards ahead, and it sometimes feels a little confining to be inside the tree canopy. So often we fixate on what other people have, and we think that their lives are somehow better than our own. Hiking has taught me that wherever I am is precisely enough. It’s just up to me to look around and find joy. My attitude is directly linked to my outlook.
  6. Effort equals outcome. Every single step is up to me and is a direct result of my own initiative. There are no shortcuts. The trail is the trail. No one is going to carry my pack for me. No one will magically appear to give me a lift. No one is going to listen to me whine and bitch. If I choose to stand in one place all day, I will be in the same place come nightfall. I love this about hiking. It’s brutally honest in that way. The more effort I put in, the more miles I cover that day. And the further I walk, the farther I get.
  7. Sleep is significant. We all know what it feels like to operate on a few hours of sleep. We’re often crabby and can’t concentrate when we don’t get adequate sleep. People are often fascinated with the idea of sleeping in a tent or a lean-to in the woods, and they automatically assume that it’s more uncomfortable than sleeping in a cushy bed in a dry, temperature controlled house. But I can tell you the best sleep I’ve ever had in my life has been in the woods. Hiking all day is exhausting in an entirely different way than battling rush hour traffic, and a nine-to-five job is. I love my air mattress and sound of rain as it hits the tent. When I wake, I feel refreshed and ready to tackle the day.
  8. Be comfortable with discomfort. I won’t lie: backpacking is hard. And it hurts. I’m not actually sure which is worse – going up or going down. Bones creak, ankles roll, muscles ache. I’ve been stung by bees, fallen down rock faces, skinned my elbows, banged my head. I’ve had blisters that looked like extra toes and walked in wet clothes for days on end. Pain is temporary. It’s so easy to get wrapped up and consumed by discomfort to the point that we are incapable of doing, or thinking about, anything else. Usually, we quit things because our minds let us down, not because our bodies have. I learned that pushing through discomfort means I will be stronger for it. To feel exhaustion is to be humbled by it. Life isn’t always comfortable. The key is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
  9. Snickers bars. That is all. Frank Mars invented the Snickers bar in 1930 and named it for his favorite horse. The man was a genius. Eating a Snickers bar after hiking for five hours in the rain is, well, life-altering. I’ll leave it at that.
  10. I am enough. Backpacking is an experience. Backpacking alone is entirely different. I’m forced to rely on myself for everything. Navigation, meals, safety, purified water, strength, persistence. I can’t look to anyone else for support. I can only gaze within. Being alone in challenging circumstances in the woods has taught me about self-reliance more than anything else ever has. I am capable. I am stronger than I think. I’m smart. I’m also good for nothing if I’m too hungry. These experiences have shifted my approach to relationships. I no longer seek things out from other people that I may need. Instead, I find what I need within myself, and that has helped improve every relationship in my life because I can enjoy others without requiring or expecting, anything in return.


About Lucy J. Madison: Lucy J. Madison is a novelist, poet, and screenwriter from Connecticut. She’s the author of two contemporary lesbian romance novels In the Direction of the Sun and Personal Foul as well as a collection of poetry entitled I.V. Poems (Sapphire Books). In the Direction of the Sun features a main character who hikes the Appalachian Trail to heal her broken heart. Connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @lucyjmadison.

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